Reds ready for Euro draw
Sir Alex Ferguson’s men will discover the identities of their Champions League opponents on Thursday when the draw for this season’s group stage takes place in Monaco (16:45 BST).
Whoever United are bundled with, nothing less than qualification to the knockout phase will be acceptable. Not after 2011/12, when the Reds failed to progress past the group stage and then stumbled at the second attempt, going out of the Europa League at the hands of Athletic Club.
“We’re better than that,” Sir Alex told us over the summer. “That won’t happen again. We’ll qualify from the group stages. I’ll make sure of it. We need to make a statement and show everybody last season was just a blip.”
Here, we cast an eye over the draw’s four pots to see where the potential pitfalls lie…
Chelsea, Barcelona, United, Bayern Munich, Real Madrid, Arsenal, Porto, AC Milan
Each group (A to H) is populated with one team from each pot, so United are at least assured of avoiding all the above “big guns”.
Valencia, Benfica, Shakhtar Donetsk, Zenit St Petersburg, Schalke, Manchester City, Braga, Dynamo Kyiv
We can rule out Manchester City for starters. UEFA rules stipulate teams from the same association can’t be drawn against each other in the group stages. Of the remaining seven clubs, Sir Alex will want to avoid long trips to St Petersburg, Kyiv and Donetsk, while the Reds twice failed to beat Benfica in last season’s competition. United have beaten both Valencia and Schalke in recent seasons, with Braga the only “surprise” element here: the Reds and the Portuguese outfit have never met.
Ajax, Anderlecht, Juventus, PSG, Olympiacos, Lille, Galatasaray, Spartak Moscow
Between them, Ajax and Juventus have won the competition six times, so there’s plenty of European heritage here. Nobody will want to draw big-money spenders Paris Saint Germain, either – they’ve signed some of Europe’s best talent this summer. Fellow French side Lille also shouldn’t be underestimated, even if they are now without star man Eden Hazard. With Galatasaray and Olympiacos promising hostile receptions and Spartak Moscow involving long-haul travel, Anderlecht looks the most appetising option.
Borussia Dortmund, Celtic, BATE Borisov, Dinamo Zagreb, Malaga, Montpellier, Nordsjælland, CFR Cluj
If you want lesser-known clubs, rags-to-riches stories and trips to out-of-the-way locations, Pot 4 often comes up with the goods. This year, Belarus, Croatia and Romania all boast representatives, while Malaga (Spain), Nordsjælland (Denmark) and Montpellier (France) are Champions League newcomers. The strongest footballing side is undoubtedly German champions Borussia Dortmund (avoid! avoid!), while Malaga and Celtic also have the potential to cause an upset. You’d fancy United most against Danish champions Nordsjælland and CFR Cluj, while trips to Dinamo Zagreb and Borisov should also yield positive results.